Sinful journalism

seven deadly sins wristbandsYesterday I poked fun at the shoddy journalism that marked coverage of the Vatican's supposed reissue of seven deadly sins. Most of the papers responsible for the bad reporting were British. Which, considering the different standards and approach of the British media, isn't the most surprising thing in the world. Last year, the inestimable John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter wrote:

Reporting on religion in the mainstream British press is not only sometimes dreadful, it's dangerous, and something needs to be done about it.

Allen was writing about an objectively false report in the Times (U.K.) stating that Anglicans and Catholics were considering uniting. But his statement could have been written this week.

Well, the sad news is that the America media can't get enough of sensationalism either. Fox News was rerunning the Times (U.K.)'s coverage on this story but ABC News had reporter John Berman come up with an original story for Nightline. It is laughably bad. I think it makes the British papers look good. Take, for instance, the headline:

Wrath, Lust, and Littering? The New Seven Deadly Sins Vatican Official Says Old Sins Don't Cut it in the Modern World

Not true. The Vatican official did not say that "old" sins don't cut it anymore. That's just not true.

For the last 1,500 years or so, the world of sin has been fairly simple.

Wrath and lust are two biggies on the list of the "seven deadly sins" proclaimed by Pope Gregory in the 6th century, and made famous by Dante in the "Divine Comedy" an Italian poem that portrayed the Christian after-life in the 1300s.

But these days, according to a Vatican official, anger management and a cold shower might not be enough to keep you sin-free not if you litter.

I bet any pastor or priest hearing confession would be able to dispute the notion that the sin of lust is in any way straightforward. My own pastor says sexual struggles are huge, sweeping, nearly universal problems and that the longer he is a pastor, the more he realizes they are some of the deepest problems as well as the most difficult to rectify. The notion that sexual sin is either straightforward or easily cured by a cold shower is offensive and dismissive to the extreme. Since the Brits do "cheeky" better, this kind of silliness comes off better across the pond.

And it's a shame about this coverage because the underlying story sounds interesting. I presume the Vatican official was talking about modern sin precisely because yahoos like this ABC reporter don't understand how the sin of lust adapts to ever-changing circumstances.

Also on the list are drug abuse, and huge inequality of wealth with the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer. Some hedge fund billionaires better start brushing up on their Dante.

Hardy har har! Oh wait, that's stupid. Speaking of brushing up on Dante, Berman, remember how he talks all the time about the sin of avarice? Well, see, avarice refers to an excessive greediness after wealth. So it's not really new, then, is it?

And economic injustice -- particularly as it pertains to the poorest -- isn't exactly what you'd call a new concern for the church either. Here's another egregious paragraph:

According to Catholic doctrine, mortal sins are a grave violation of God's law, and can bring about eternal damnation if you don't confess. It's unclear which of the newer sins are mortal, but either way, it's a pretty big impetus to pick up your trash.

Hurt me. Or to put it in a way he can understand, it's unclear if Berman's hacky prose is a regular feature of his writing, but either way, it's a pretty big impetus to avoid his byline.

So how does all this horrible reporting happen? Catholic News Service blames headline writers having fun. America -- the National Catholic Weekly blames a mixture of problems:

My guess is that some in the media bobbled this story for two reasons, neither of them malicious. First, a general unfamiliarity with the contemporary Catholic tradition of social sin, even though under Pope John Paul II something like "anti-Semitism" was often referred to in those terms. And, second, the fact that a headline that reads "Seven New Deadly Sins" is undeniably sexier than a headline saying, "Vatican Official Deepens Church's Reflection on Longstanding Tradition of Social Sin."

Speaking of social sin, Catholic News Service framed the story in a way that might be helpful for readers. I just hope these predictable and boring reporters have gotten the worst journalism out of their systems. I don't know how much more I can take.

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